Studies have linked porn consumption to sexual aggression, problems with intimate relationships and losing one’s virginity at an earlier age.
But the influence of sexually explicit material on some risky behaviors may be more modest than previously thought.
In a new study published by the Journal of Sexual Medicine, four researchers argue that previous studies on the subject have been too narrowly focused when it comes to drawing a connection between X-rated materials and negative outcomes.
Such research has often asked some form of the same question: whether what people see will affect what people do — and the results didn’t paint porn in a flattering light. The latest study found that the connection may be less significant than other studies have suggested, though the work still provided plenty of support for the anti-pornography contingent.
University of Copenhagen’s Gert Martin Hald and colleagues conducted an online survey of 4,600 young people asking about a broad range of sexual acts, from threesomes to experience with one-night stands to prostitution. They found that among the 15-to-25-year-old participants, almost 90% of males and nearly half of females reported that they had used porn sometime in the previous year, the vast majority of which was online.
And there is some evidence that widespread access to the Internet, with its triple-X domains, may be pushing exposure up.
In 1973, for example, a study found that 84% of men and 69% of adult women had seen pornography, the majority before the age of 21. Thirty-five years later, a 2008 survey in CyberPsychology & Behavior revealed that 93% of boys and 62% of girls had encountered dirty material online before they hit age 18.
Heightened exposure, Hald found, was associated with high-risk sexual practices like accepting some kind of payment for sex. He and his team also tied porn usage to “adventurous” behaviors, like having “real-life sex” with someone they met online, which some experts believe may lead to increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases.
But the researchers emphasize that the link between porn and risky business isn’t absolute or clear-cut. For example, there may be other contributors to the promiscuous behavior, like a tendency toward thrill seeking (which, in turn, could make young people more likely to experiment with porn). Pornography is “just one factor among many that may influence the sexual behaviors of young people,” they concluded, while cautioning that the findings “should not be interpreted as an indication that the influence … is negligible, nonexistent, or unimportant.”
The results should inform educators and policymakers who may turn too quickly to the ubiquity of sexually explicit material as the primary culprit for society’s attitudes toward sex. Expanding the list of potential contributors could lead to more effective ways of curbing perilous behavior, like addressing the thrill seeking that turns sexual encounters solely into opportunities for attaining physical pleasure or engaging in “sexual exploration.” A 2008 study, for example, showed that self-control and planning ahead helped gay men to avoid careless behavior that could put their health at risk.
There is also the fact that public tolerance of sexually explicit material is increasing. A 2011 Gallup poll found a growing generational divide when it came to pornography: only 19% of people 55 and older said it was morally acceptable, compared with more than 40% of people ages 18 to 34. If opposing porn continues to lose popular support among young people, that’s one more reason to explore other avenues for promoting safe sexual practices.